The Continental’s chrome script has been affixed to the cars a top the Ford Motor Company line up for the past 80 years. Sometimes those cars were rarified classics like the original 1939-41 Continental, or the 1956-57 Mark II. In more forgettable times the name appeared on forgettable cars like the 1982-86 bustleback sedans. Whether it was a beauty or a beast, that depended on the state of automobile design of the day. The following is a stroll through the fond memories of Dearborn’s finest car.
The First Continental
Edsel Bryant Ford was the only son of Ford Motor Company founder, Henry Ford. As a boy, Edsel loved to look at cars. He cut out pictures from magazines and spent hours studying and analyzing what made this car sporty and that one elegant. At the age of 25, Edsel’s father made him president of newly acquired Lincoln Motor Company. There he applied some of his early design studies as he worked with the various custom coachbuilders to create splendid custom bodied Lincolns for well-heeled customers.
One morning in the fall of 1938, Ford Motor Company’s brilliant design chief, E.T. Gregorie, thought he had come up with something to spruce up Lincoln’s rather slow selling lineup. It could best be described as a Lincoln sports car. He drew up some sketches that placed a long hood and low beltline on an existing Lincoln Zephyr frame. Upon seeing the drawings over lunch the next day Edsel loved it. “How fast can you have one built?” Five months later, in time for his March holiday in Florida, Gregorie presented Edsel with the first Continental.
The low slung beauty was a sensation among Edsel’s friends, Florida’s affluent “snow bird” set. Many asked him how they could get one. The following year the 1940 Continental was introduced for sale to the public.
Among the world’s aficionados of design, the 1940-41 Continental was universally acclaimed. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright called the Continental the most beautiful car ever built, and it was selected in 1951 by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the eight best designs of the automobile’s first half century.
The Lincoln lineup got an updated look in 1942. Continental’s exotic shape and delicate details were deemed too expensive to render given the car’s low sales volume. Edsel Ford’s health had begun to decline about this time. He wasn’t there to fight for his baby. Thus, under the cold eye of the accountants and the production people, the Continental pretty face was discarded in favor of the with the brand’s prevailing look. This was unfortunate, because while the Lincolns of the day were impressive looking, they were not very pretty.
The Continental returned when post war auto production resumed in 1946, selling another 3700 cars during that time. When work began in the first post-war Lincolns due in 1949, a new Continental was proposed at the top of the line. But Lincoln’s new sleek rounded body did not lend itself to sufficient trim variation to justify a separate Continental model. It would be seven years before the name would again appear on a car from the Ford Motor Company.
Continental Reborn as America’s Finest Automobile
When William Clay Ford, Edsel’s youngest son, began the Continental Mark II project in the early 1950s, had two goals in mind. He wanted to honor his late father’s love of beautiful design. He also sought to create a halo brand for the Ford Motor Company that would project over it an aura of style and prestige.
The youngest Ford threw everything into creating the Continental Mark II. He hired famed industrial designer Gordon Buehrig of Cord 810/812 fame to create the innovative unit-body platform. This arrangement allowed the interior to be dropped down into a pan, making for a much lower car with no loss in headroom. Designers dubbed this the “cow belly.” He gave former Packard designer John Reinhart the freedom to create bold proportions; long hood, short deck and elegant, understated lines unblemished by the chrome affliction of the day.
The 1956 Continental’s $10,000 price tag was at the time nearly as stunning as its looks. That was twice the price of an ordinary Lincoln, more than any Cadillac, and nearly as much as a Rolls Royce.
In one of the earlier uses of paid product placements, a Continental found it’s was into the movie High Society, with Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. Old Blue Eyes himself owned a Continental, as did Elvis Presley, Lana Turner and Cecil B. DeMille. World leaders, President Eisenhower, the Shah of Iran and Eva Peron each had one, along with captains of industry like R.J. Reynolds, Howard Johnson and Henry J. Kaiser.
No, Continentals were not meant for the masses, and production figures bore that out. In two years, only 2994 of the beautiful coupes were made. Another perhaps 20 prototypes and pre-production cars were built, including at least two convertibles that were absolutely stunning.
It is estimated that Ford lost about $1,000 on each Continental they sold. There were two ways to interpret this. One could say the Continental cast a halo of prestige over the Lincoln Capris and Mercury Montereys parked nearby in Lincoln-Mercury showrooms, it represented $3 million worth of image advertising. The less imaginative saw Continental as a $3 million cash drain on a company that was about go public. Unfortunately, it was the bean-counters’ view that prevailed. The Continental Division was shut down after just 20 months.
Their shortsightedness is regrettable. Beans can be counted; what makes a car attractive is more elusive. An automobile purchase is as often based as much on emotion as economics. Without an understanding of emotion it is impossible to grasp the indirect benefits of a car like the Continental Mark II. A halo is a ring of grace that illuminates its lineage with glory. Continental was a halo car. Even though each one lost the company thousands, Continental’s halo made Ford’s Family of Fine Cars seem finer. Some numbers are harder to crunch than others.
As for the flesh and blood family? Reportedly, the fate of the Mark II broke William Clay Ford’s heart. For many years after its death, he showed little interest in Ford cars.
The Forgotten Continentals
The Continental Division was gone, but the copyright on the name remained. To the accountants, that name was an asset on the balance sheet. As such, full value had to be extracted. To the marketers, the Continental name might bring a little class to their 1958 lineup of Lincolns that was turning out to be rather gauche. So, after an all to brief mourning period for the departed Mark II, the suits in Dearborn slapped the Continental name onto what was essentially a trim package a top of the Lincoln lineup.
The original Continental, and its encore the Mark II, were graceful and sublime, rolling sculptures done by masters. The 1958 Continental Mark III was more like pop art done on acid.
Perhaps that’s being unkind. The late 50s Continentals were simply products of the school of design that prevailed at Ford at the time - the one that gave us the Edsel. It took angles, bulges, scallops and fins - all kind of going in the same direction - and hoped that everything would come together.
These strange looking beasts continued for two more model years, each year getting different pieces of chrome trimming, along with a progressively higher Roman numeral. It is not clear whether Ford’s marketing wizards a.) realized that pretty soon they were going to run out of Marks, and had therefore better do a nomenclatural rethink, b) became aware that they were making a mockery of a noble name, or c) they simply couldn’t count past V in Roman. For whatever the reason, the marks ended in 1960.
The 1961 Continental: The Car that Saved Lincoln
Many consider the 1960s a golden age for the automobile. One of that era’s treasured icons was the 1961 Lincoln Continental. With a clean sweep of designer Elwood Engle’s pen, the be-finned and chrome encrusted cretians of the late Fifties were rendered extinct. Glitzy baubles and purposeless decorations that had substituted for design, were replaced with fine proportions and clean lines. Like the earlier Mark II, the new Continental was elegant without resorting to excess.
It seems strange to say that one of the most beautiful cars of all time was given life by one of the most notorious bean counters of all time. Robert McNamara, Ford’s head of automotive operations and number cruncher extraordinaire, delivered Lincoln this mandate: If the next generation due in 1961 didn’t make money then the storied marque was history.
A design was already in the works but no one was particularly enthusiastic about it. McNamara gave the assignment for a new Lincoln to Elwood Engle, who was working in Ford’s advanced design studio, and therefore not encumbered by Lincoln’s stale design-think.
With a tight timeline and minimal budget, Engle’s only alternative was to piggyback the upcoming ’61-63 Thunderbird, with its low, sleek, unit-body platform. This design placed a limitation the car’s size and weight. The new Lincoln would be a foot and a half shorter and 400lbs lighter than its predecessor. Instead of sheer bulk, sleek lines and perfect proportions would convey road presence.
One of the new Continental’s most distinct features were its “suicide” doors. These were not divine inspiration on Engle’s part. They the result of financial constraints. The rear door on one side of the car used the same innards as the front door on the other side, saving on tooling costs. Lincoln lacked the funds for a 2-door body, which was very popular at the time. So it was frugality, not style, that gave us the first American 4-door convertible in a dozen years.
The absence of a 2-door coupe meant sales of the ‘61 Continental barely budged off previous levels. Given McNamara’s mandate, this was an existential problem for Lincoln. But the make caught a break. Before the final sales tally for 1961 was complete, Robert McNamara had accepted President Kennedy’s request to be his secretary of defense. His successors gave Lincoln a reprieve, and their patience was rewarded. Unlike the unfortunate ’58-60 cars, this generation of Continental saw sales grow each subsequent year. You could say that John F. Kennedy saved the Lincoln. Ironic, given that three years later their fates would again cross.
Lee Iacocca’s Mark
Legend has it that while on a trip to Europe and unable to sleep, Ford’s master marketer, Lee Iacocca (who passed away just last month at the age of 95), had a brainstorm. It involved a big coupe with a Continental-style tire bulge, and a long hood capped with a Rolls Royce-looking grill. A long distance phone call to Dearborn that night got designer Dave Ash to work on a prototype. The result was a knockout. Iacocca loved it. When it was shown to company chairman, Henry Ford II, he reportedly said that he’d like to take it home.
With its visual kinship to the Continental Mark II unmistakable, a revival of the Mark nomenclature seemed obvious. That is, until someone remembered the highly forgettable 1958-60 Continental Marks III, IV, and V. They couldn’t call this big beauty the Mark VI – not with a straight face anyway. So, since most people at Lincoln-Mercury preferred to make those late 50s cars as ethereal as a bad dream, the decision was made to officially forget them. Like Soviet generals airbrushed out of official photos after they’d fallen out of favor, the ‘58-60 Continental Marks have been expunged from the narrative of several internal company histories.
The magic of marketing makes a Mark for the masses. The Continental Mark III was (re)born in the spring of 1968. While this handsome car was not quite in the league of its ancestors, it was far more of a commercial success. Over 85,000 of the opulent coupes were sold in a run of three-plus years. That’s more than 28 times as many cars as the Mark II sold, and 45 times the original Continental. With the addition of the Mark III, Lincoln sales doubled. Moreover, the Mark was reported to earn a profit of over $2000 per car. That extra $160 million in pure profit likely put Lincoln solidly in the black for the first time in its history.
In 1972, following the unfortunate path all American cars seem destined to take, the next generation Continental Mark IV grew a bit larger and fatter.
Government mandated impact resistant bumpers in 1973 (front) and 1974 (rear) made the Mark IV less graceful…though it still dripped with presence. An astounding 275,000 Mark IVs were sold over 5 years.
The 1977 Mark V got an overhaul for the fuel crisis era. It had crisper lines and was 300lbs lighter. But less mass didn’t mean it was any smaller. They were still bloody enormous.
When is a Continental not a Continental?
Throughout the Eighties and Nineties here would be Mark VIs, Mark VIIs and Mark VIIIs. These cars would be high-style luxury coupes that still occupied the highest rung of the Ford Motor Company product ladder. They would stay true to their Continental bloodline…except for one thing. They weren’t called Continentals anymore.
During the 1970s, in an effort to raise the status of Lincoln sedans - without spending the money to make Lincolns better cars - management began sticking the Continental name in some form on all its cars. By the end of the decade Continental was at a point where it was eclipsing the parent make in customer awareness. The old guard at Lincoln couldn’t let that happen. So rather than do a Cher or Beyoncé - ditch the sir name completely, and set on a fresh new path of American luxury - they decided to knock Continental down a notch. Starting with the 1980 cars, base Lincoln sedans were called Continentals, while the premium price line was called simply the Mark VI.
By the mid 1980s, Ford was fully embracing the Euro-look and feel. With the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, Dearborn had visited Munich and decided it liked the schnitzel. Patterned after the BMW 630CSi –the ultimate Ultimate Driving Machine - the high performance Mark VII LSC was arguably the most sophisticated American car on the road.
For 1993 the new Lincoln Mark VIII had gained a DOHC 32-valve V8 engine and independent rear suspension. It may have been the best Ford ever…and it wasn’t called a Continental.
Sometimes a Mark is a Stain
What happened to the Continental name all this time? Instead of letting it ascend, Lincoln chose to beat its prodigy into submission. Starting in 1982, it did so with a stubby little sedan, based on Ford’s ubiquitous “Fox” midsized platform, which they called a Continental.
In many ways this flaccid car reflected America at its time of time of deep soul-searching. In that post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Carter age, Detroit’s Big Three were trying to find themselves, design-wise. In doing so they stumbled onto what became known as the retro-bustle-back look, and decided it was cool. The first to adopt the style was the 1980 Cadillac Seville. Next came the 1981 Chrysler Imperial. The 1982 Continental, thankfully, was the last.
Reborn for a New Age
The Fox-based Continental lasted into 1986. After a year off to let people forget - though judging by sales numbers, they had already done that – the Continental was completely redesigned for 1988. As far as driving dynamics, it was easily the best Lincoln ever (until the ’93 Mark VIII came along.) It used a stretched Ford Taurus platform, meaning that this new Continental was the first front-driver in Lincoln’s history. It was also the first Lincoln to have a 6-cylinder engine.
Perhaps more importantly, the ’88 Continental was the first Lincoln since the Mark III in 1969 to have a customer waiting list. For more than a year, the new Continentals sold regularly for over sticker price, providing a much-needed boost to the bottom line of Lincoln and its dealers. At least it was for a while. By the time this writer was handed the keys to one at a Hertz counter in 1991, supply and demand had passed each other going in opposite directions. Discounts were now plentiful. Even so, nearly half a million of these FWD Continentals were sold over a dozen years.
With the arrival of a new Millennium, Dearborn’s marketing gurus decided that proper names were passé. Luxury carmakers BMW, Mercedes and Lexus were thriving calling their cars just by letters and numbers. Why couldn’t Lincoln do the same? Thus, the Continental was replaced with the 1999 Lincoln LS, which shared underpinnings with the Jaguar S-Type and a new retro T-Bird. It was the first Lincoln in 50 years to sport a manual transmission, and the first one ever to have independent rear suspension. The LS was a terrific car…with a dumb name. There would not be another Continental from Lincoln for 17 years.
The naming situation at Lincoln deteriorated from there. Who the hell remembers which car was the Lincoln MKS, MKZ, MKT, ETC - let alone which one carried on the soul of the Continental? Even their owners didn’t know what they were driving. As the story goes, Ford’s marketing chief was at the airport waiting for a flight, when he overheard a couple arguing about what their Lincoln was called. Was it an MKS or an MKZ? Not long after that, it was announced that Lincoln was ditching their ill-conceived alphabet soup nomenclature.
Fittingly, Lincoln’s next new car was called the 2017 Continental. It was, is a good car based on the well regarded 2nd generation Ford Fusion platform. But it was nothing special. What is special is a limited edition 2019 Continental that celebrates the 80th anniversary of the first Continental. It also pays homage to the iconic ’61-64 Continentals with its “suicide” doors. Over the years that term has become politically incorrect, and so on they are now called “coach doors.” Only 80 Coach Door Editions are offered in 2019. Greater supplies will be available for 2020 - though at a more than $50,000 premium over a regular Continental, sales likely won’t surpass the original of eighty years ago.
It is not clear for how long this latest Continental will stay in production. Traditional cars are in decline, replaced by more practical, but much less elegant trucks and crossovers. It is hard to imagine the marketers one day sticking the Continental name on a truck, so perhaps Continental will soon be gone for good. Then again, who would have thought any carmaker would call anything an MKT?
Continental was born out of Edsel Ford’s desire to build beautiful cars. The 1940 Continental was Edsel’s dream materialized. The 1956 Continental Mark II was a son’s tribute his father’s esthetic. The 1961 Lincoln Continental was also an expression of Edsel’s quest to build beautiful cars, and it saved his beloved Lincoln. Each stands today as a work of art in automotive form. Even the 1968 Continental Mark III was a fitting tribute to what the name stood for: style, elegance and exclusivity, albeit in mass-produced form. But therein lies the problem. Exclusivity cannot be mass-produced and remain exclusive.
Leaving a Mark on Hollywood
The scene was so griping that only a certifiable Car Guy – we can’t help ourselves – would notice that it was in front of a ’41 Continental Coupe’ that Sonny Corleone met his end in Francis Ford Coppela’s, The Godfather (1972).
A big black sedan rolls into a dusty Utah town with evil on its mind. “Its” mind? Surely you mean the driver’s mind. The Car (1977) is a modern Biblical tale about Satan appearing on earth in the form of a demonic car. Given the times in which this movie appeared, the Devil’s choice of wheels was appropriate; a big gas-guzzling Lincoln Mark III, built by famed Hollywood kustomizer, George Barris. No Academy Awards here, but a pretty good horror flick.
There were a lot of awards given out for Philip D’Antoni’s The French Connection (1971), where NYC narcotics cop, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), pursues smugglers from Marseilles. Their choice for drug mule is a Mark III.
If you watched detective shows on TV in the 1970s, you might remmember the fad of having various handicaps placed on the hero (perhaps in an attempt to even the playing field?) Ironside, starring Raymond Burr, was wheelchair bound, Barnaby Jones, starring Buddy Ebson, was old, another detective who’s name escapes me was blind. In Cannon, William Conrad played well-fed detective Frank Cannon. There weren’t many cars that he fit into. He fit into a Mark IV.
And finally, after an ill-fated road trip (while on double secret probation, no less) and facing expulsion, the boys of Delta house decide to go out in a blaze of glory in John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). Flounder’s brother may not have approved of his ’62 Continental being used as an instrument of destruction.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson